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“With” or In” the Spirit - Mt 3:11 (Monday with Mounce 79)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday with Mounce In the early times of Greek, before Classical Greek, there weren't prepositions. Basic ideas were associated with the different cases, and it was left up to the rhetorical skill of the speaker and the listening skills of the hearer to determine from context what was the specific meaning of the case.

Prepositions came into the language in an attempt to be more specific, a fact that a student of biblical Greek might find almost humorous considering the lack of specificity enjoyed by some prepositions. I mean, what really does επι express?

But this connection between cases and prepositions somewhat explains some of the similarities we see between them. Take, for example, the interchange of εν and the dative case in Matt 3:11.

“I baptize you with (εν) water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with (εν) the Holy Spirit and fire” (also John 1:33; Acts 1:5) The Lukan parallel has the simple dative case: υδατι without the εν (3:16, also Acts 11:16). The dative case and the preposition εν can carry the same meaning, and unfortunately the same ambiguity.


Many Bibles with footnotes give the alternate translation “with,” as a possible meaning for both the dative and εν. I have always found this an interesting translation conundrum. The most natural translation of εν υδατι is “in water.” After all, we know what lies in store for Jesus at John's baptism, that they were “in” the water and Jesus came “out of” (απο) the river.

But then we come to the baptism “in/with” the Holy Spirit and a decision is not quite so simple. And finally we arrive at the baptism “in/with” fire, and that should probably be “with” fire. 

In English we don't talk about being baptized “in fire,” perhaps “by” fire but not “in,” and yet the English idiom “baptized by fire” does not have the same meaning.

In the back of my mind I seem to remember there is a debate on this point; otherwise, the footnotes would not be necessary. Yet I can't figure it out from the commentaries. Please let me know if you are aware of the controversy. What would be the reason to translate “in the Holy Spirit”?

But what is especially important is the fact that there is only one preposition with the closing “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The reason this is so important is that the single preposition governs both objects and effectively keeps them united as a single entity. Not exactly the same, but seen together. This is the clue to its meaning.

Most likely this is a reference back to Jeremiah and Ezekiel where we read of the promised coming of God's Spirit, which will both cleanse and empower. This was seen in John's baptism of preparation, in his baptism of Jesus, and ultimately in Pentecost. But the important point is that both actions, the negative and the positive, are brought about through the work of the Spirit.

The Spirit baptism received by all Christians (1 Cor 12:13) cleanses the absolute sway of sin and empowers us for sanctification. It is the one and the same Spirit who prepares and fulfills.

The preposition and dative case may have some ambiguity, but the meaning of the text is clear. Thankfully.


Mouncew William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at  Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at


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